Graduate students who teach and do research at the University of Washington want to press their case for higher wages, but the university says it doesn’t have the money to pay them more. It’s not clear how many of the 4,500 graduate-student employees will strike.

Share story

Graduate students who teach and do research at the University of Washington plan a one-day strike Tuesday to draw attention to wages they say aren’t keeping up with the escalating price of housing in Seattle.

On Thursday, they took their case to the UW’s Board of Regents after a rally on Red Square and a noisy march through Suzzallo Library.

The request comes amid growing concern about the university’s finances, which include a $75 million operating deficit last year at UW Medicine and a projected $42 million debt shortfall this year at the School of Dentistry.

Earlier in the day, the UW governing board heard from finance staffers who outlined how the university’s financial outlook had deteriorated since 2013. This year, the bond-rating firm Moody’s downgraded its outlook for the UW to “Aaa negative,” although the UW continues to be among the highest-rated universities in the country, and the downgrade has had no impact on the cost of borrowing, said Jeff Scott, executive vice president of finance and administration.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

It’s common for universities to run a modest operating deficit and backfill it with endowment investment returns, said Brian McCartan, vice president of finance. But he called the spending between 2013 and 2017 “very negative and not sustainable.”

One of the biggest impacts was a raise for most employees. In 2016, the UW handed out 3 percent merit raises, and in 2017 gave an additional 4 percent merit raise to faculty and staff. The raises aimed to help catch up to those offered at peer institutions after years of little to no increase during the recession.

Sarah Hall, the UW’s budget director, stressed the need to rein in expenses and find ways to increase revenue. Currently, university expenses are growing faster than revenues.

Student’s budget: $23 left

Meanwhile, the UW’s 4,500 Academic Student Employees say their salaries, which range between $23,000 and $35,000 a year, are barely enough to make ends meet in a city where apartment rents are rising rapidly. UW officials point out the jobs are only 20 hours a week.

The students, who teach, tutor, grade papers and do research at the university, are represented by UAW Local 4121. Their contract with the UW expired April 30.

They are asking for at least a 3 percent pay raise in 2018, and a 6 percent raise in both 2019 and 2020, to keep up with the rising cost of housing in Seattle, as well as other expenses. They are also asking that a $300-per-quarter fee be waived.

The university has offered 2 percent a year for each of the next three years, saying it already has increased their pay substantially over the last several contracts, and cannot afford to pay any more.

The two sides also remain at odds over a health-care plan the graduate students say discriminates against trans individuals.

However, they’ve come to a partial agreement on training to help recognize and report sexual-harassment complaints.

Emily Willard, a Ph.D. candidate in the Jackson School, said she makes $2,380 a month and pays $1,210 for the smallest unit in graduate-student housing. After food, utilities and her other expenses are paid, she ends the month with about $23 left over.

“I left a job in D.C. to do cutting-edge research here, but this is what I’m left with in my bank account” at the end of a month, she said.

Other students said the high costs hurt the UW’s efforts to diversify, because only students from well-off families can afford to get a graduate degree.

It’s not clear how many of the graduate-student employees will strike, or if any of the UW’s 15 other unions will join them. About 40 to 45 percent, or 20,000, of the UW’s employees are unionized.

UAW 4121 held a strike-authorization vote in late April, and although members agreed overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, only a little more than half participated in the vote. On Thursday, 50 to 100 students rallied on the steps of Suzzallo before speaking before the regents during the public comment period. As is their tradition during the public-comment period, the regents did not directly address the students’ issues.

During a strike, some classes are likely to be canceled, and science labs — which often are run by teaching assistants — will probably need to be rescheduled.

UAW 4121 last held a strike in 2001.